I hurriedly stumbled out of the hotel with a carry-on bag rumbling across the tile floor behind me, and my fake rust-colored Ray-Bans hanging on the bridge of my nose. Shuffling through my papers, I located my boarding pass and passport. After 10 days on 4 hours of sleep per night, I was flying from Maputo, Mozambique back home to Washington.
A boy with a wooden carving stood outside of the hotel, eagerly awaiting my exit. As I brushed past him to my motor pool, he simply said, “sir, please…” as he extended his arms forth to display a wooden carving.
A lot of kitsch re-sellers loiter about this part of town. They know individuals that come to Mozambique for business or pleasure typically stay at the hotels along the Indian Ocean. They know these tourists have a large appetite for mass-produced and useless keepsakes. I was not an exception, carrying a couple small-carvings I had picked up for my mother, sister, and brother.
I felt terrible as I passed the boy, explaining that I was late and sorry but was not going to purchase his carving. My motor pool had been waiting for 20 minutes passed the time I was supposed to be there, and needless to say the driver who was usually very jovial (and on this occasion happened to be wearing an Obama 2012 t-shirt and fake Ray-Bans) was not pleased by my tardiness.
I jumped in the SUV and was transported to the airport. The driver turned on the radio – “Live your Life” by T.I. Ft. Rihanna was to be the soundtrack of this drive. As we drove through the city, I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between what I saw here and what I had seen in Cape Town South Africa. Small cinder-block shacks, smashed together by the dozens. Tin roofs, dirt roads, and a severe lack of basic infrastructure. The words “VODAFONE” in bright red emblazoned across the concrete walls which sectioned the city blocks.
We drove past some intersections which reminded me a lot of Afghanistan. In fact, the look and feel was similar to that of Afghanistan, minus the severe concerns for safety at all times. Some roads paved, some roads dirt. Small shops uniformly facing the busy roadways, shopowners seated next to their merchandise waiting for passers-by.
I realized this isn’t unique. This is a lot of the world.
Not to paint an imperfect picture, the previous day I spent wandering the streets of downtown Maputo, and I don’t think I saw a single unpaved road. The downtown area is compact and bustling; and the Ministry of Culture/Tourism is definitely doing its part to encourage tourism by installing museums, statues, and other things to see around the city. I happened to aimlessly wander into the National Currency Museum where I saw… a US million dollar note. I couldn’t determine if it was supposed to be a joke.
Foreign and locally owned cafes and restaurants appear at every corner and the recent surge in appearance of rickshaws has surprised many – including the locals. There’s an evident divide between certain parts of the city and others. Visiting the city’s town hall, I could barely remember I was even in Mozambique.
I arrived at the airport, checked in, and headed for the Business Class lounge. Somehow through booking my ticket, the Busines Class flight to South Africa en route home was the same price as Economy. Naturally, I opted for Business Class. It is truly rare the amount of times I’ve been in a Business Class lounge, and I don’t know if it is due to my predispositions or if it is truly the case, but the vibe I feel upon entry in any Business Class lounge is arrogant and overpaid. I’m always looked at strangely in this environment, I look young and obviously like I don’t belong. I dislike that depending on how much you (or your company) pays, you can enjoy the luxuries of Business Class travel while traveling mothers with children have to tough out the typically crowded boarding gates; this is Capitalism after all. I digress.
Soon after we boarded the plane, a woman came to sit in the seat next to mine. Promptly after being seated she took out her Bose headphones and iPad. I figured she was a tourist from South Africa. A lot of tourists from South Africa come to Maputo for their vacation. I saw them all around the touristy parts, and they were always open to impromptu discussion.
The plane rocketed into the sky, and as always, I sat in my specifically requested window seat. I am ceaselessly amazed by the gargantuan cotton puffs of cumulus as seen from the window of an airplane. As we hovered above Maputo en route to South Africa, I couldn’t help but think about the overwhelmingly friendly demeanor of the vast majority of Mozambicans I met. It is a country dominated by a friendly culture- from what I noticed in my very short stay. I’m pretty sure I met some of the cutest people in the world while I was there.
I also couldn’t help but contrast the luxury of Business class to the poverty I witnessed on my way to the airport. I’ve come to realize I dislike the mindset that wealth seems to generate. Let me explain:
1) Exposure to a certain environment for long enough alters your thought processes to fit said environment. I have absolutely 0 credential in making that claim – but it seems to make logical sense. Thoughts and discourse, or even bar room banter, of someone living in Alaska could not possibly mirror those of someone living in Saudi Arabia. There may be overlap, but the approach to ideas and topics would be shaped by culture, religion, environment, etc. I think a parallel could be drawn between consistent exposure to luxurious environments and exposure to poverty-stricken environments. You may talk about similar things, but your entire approach and viewpoint are completely different.
“We walk the same path, but got on different shoes, live in the same building, but we got different views” – Drake. He actually has a point.
2) Wealth enables you to physically distance yourself from the context of poverty/lack of wealth which you may have once lived in, but this physical distancing also emotionally distances the burden and responsibility to help others from a similar background. If you are surrounded by poverty all the time, naturally you would feel compelled to do something. If you lived hundreds of miles away in a gated community of sufficient income, chances are, you’d forget.
The end result of these two, combined?
You forget about your duties to others. You become immersed in your own wealth, career success, and the security of your own family that you forget everyone else. You may make monetary donations once in a while, but time is usually not donated. And though you may have lived your own childhood in a low-income environment, once you have achieved that 5 or 6 figure income, you forgot. You paint yourself rosy memories of your childhood and the obstacles you overcame while your turn a blind-eye to those still stuck in that environment.
How am I so confident in making this claim? Because this is my own story line. Do I spend enough time with those in need? No. Why? Because I’m gasping for air chasing every next career opportunity. How is it so difficult to volunteer one Saturday each month?
What if wealthy and able individuals were legally required a specific number of community service hours each quarter? No monetary donations, just physical time commitment. Would the world be a better place? What if they were required to log hours volunteering at a charity or community project? What if they were required to log hours volunteering at a homeless shelter? Would these personal experience keep them grounded and remind them of the circumstances which still exist in the world?
The acquisition of wealth begets the desire for more wealth. Slowly you find other people’s problems not worth the time.
As I hurriedly typed these notes on my phone during the long plane ride home, I recalled an experience I had before I left a refugee camp in Bethlehem during the Summer of 2008. I met a cab driver in Nablus. He was gracious enough to invite me to his small home and introduce me to his family. He was also gracious enough to bus me around the city and show me the sites. Before I left he told me that I need to “go out, and tell the world of what I have seen.” He told me that I need to remember what I have learned and use it to help others.
I exited the airport gate at Dulles International Airport. It was overcast and rainy in Washington DC. I stepped outside, took a breath, and wrote one final note in my phone…
Arguably, one of the biggest weaknesses of the human condition is that we forget. We forget our motivational experiences and the power those experiences may have generated at one time slowly lose their steam. Indifference becomes a fixture because, well, there’s no effort required. I just hope neither you nor I forget what motivates us and we continue to work towards what is real and recognize what isn’t.